How to Use a Transcribed Online Census - dummies

How to Use a Transcribed Online Census

By April Leigh Helm, Matthew L. Helm

If you are researching your genealogy and you can’t find your ancestor in one of the census indexes, another option might be to look for a transcribed census record. Sometimes individuals who transcribe records may enter comments about name variations that will assist you in locating a hard-to-find ancestor.

Keep in mind that most of the free online transcriptions cover only a portion of a census area, deal with a particular family, or are complete transcriptions for a county.

As with any transcribed record, you should always verify your findings with a digitized or microfilm copy of the original record. Often, census records are difficult to read because of their age, the quality of the handwriting, and so on — so mistakes do occur in the transcription process.

Finding transcribed records on the Internet is similar to finding census indexes. You can try one of the comprehensive genealogical sites under a geographical category or a search engine.

Census records in the United States are a mainstay of genealogists, so most transcribed censuses you see on the Internet come from the United States (although that doesn’t mean censuses from other countries aren’t online).

A couple of projects are undertaken by USGenWeb volunteers to systematically transcribe census records. Online, you can find both the USGenWeb Archives Census Project and the USGenWeb Census Project On-Line Inventory of Transcribed Censuses.

Individuals simply transcribed those censuses that they were interested in or those associated with a geographical area they’re researching. This fact doesn’t diminish the importance of these efforts; it only explains why you may see a census record for one county but not for the county right next to it.

Here’s a sample search on the USGenWeb Archives Census Project site:

  1. Go to the USGenWeb Census Project site.

    You see a page with a map and a list of states and territories for which census transcriptions are available.

  2. Select a state for your search by clicking the state on the map or its link in the list.

    For this example, you’re looking for census information on Isaac Metcalf, who lived in Baylor County, Texas around 1880, so select Texas. A list of available census schedules for the state appears.

  3. Click a year or type of schedule that interests you.

    Select 1880. The resulting page contains a table listing the location, roll number, status of the project, and transcriber’s name.

  4. Scroll through the list and click the available census link (Online, Images, Index, or Archives) in the Links column next to the County name.

    Choose the transcription for Baylor County by clicking the Online link, which takes you to the Information on Baylor County web page.

  5. Scroll down and click the 1880 Baylor County Federal Census link.

    A page of transcribed census entries is displayed, and you can scroll down to an individual named Isaac Metcalf. You can also use your browser’s Find in Page option to find the name you’re looking for.

The transcriptions on this site are the works of volunteers; you might find errors here and there. Typographical errors may crop up, some censuses may not be indexed, or the status of the project for a particular county may be incorrect.

The most plentiful type of transcribed census records you’re likely to encounter is the plain-text census, which is a web page or text file that’s simply a transcription of the actual census record without any kind of search function. You either have to skim the page or use your web browser’s Find in Page option to find the person you’re looking for.

The 1850 census for Stark County, Illinois is an example of this type of census return. For each individual, the record includes the line number (LN), house number (HN), family number (FN), last name, first name, age, sex, race, occupation, value (VAL), and birthplace. This site is also typical of smaller census sites in its focus on the records of one county (actually, one township in one county).


Some sites contain collections of several census returns for a specific geographic area (over an extended period of time). A good example of this type of site is the Transcribed Census Records for Vernon County, Missouri, which has several transcribed census returns for the county from 1860 to 1930.